HIV/Aids may seem to be more of a social than an environmental problem, but research is finding that the death of economically productive people is causing rural people to rely more heavily on the environment for their livelihoods than previously, increasing the demands on wild plants for food.
Wayne Twine, manager of Wits University's SUNRAE (Sustaining Natural Resources in African Ecosystems) programme has studied the use of natural resources in rural communities in Bushbuckridge, alongside the Kruger National Park, and has found that rural people rely on the natural environment as a buffer against poverty. The environment provides wood for fuel, over 50 species of edible wild fruits, edible insects and plants.
Money is also earned through the sale of fuelwood, wood carvings and marulas. Twine estimates that in rural households the direct-use value of natural resources equals the combined value of crop and livestock production. Up to 90 percent of households in the area still use wood for fuel, even if they live in an electrified area.
Around 16.5kg of firewood are used per person per day, and between 500kg to one tonne of firewood is used at the average funeral. All but one of the households surveyed collected wild greens, known as guxe, from fields and gardens to eat as relish with their mealie pap. In Limpopo province, over 20 percent of deaths are attributed to Aids. Economically active people between 15 and 49 are one of the age groups most affected by Aids.
It appears that the main implication the death of rural adult has is the re-allocation of tasks to provide fuel and food - water, wood and green vegetables may no longer be bought, but must be hunted for, taking away time from school, church, tending gardens, cleaning the house and other activities.
Although fuelwood consumption does not change greatly in a household when an economically productive person dies, the household may stop buying firewood from others, and delegate a household member to spend up to four hours a day finding fuelwood.
Despite the fact that marulas trees produce fruit and people can make money from the fruit, the trees are increasingly being chopped down as the fuelwood supply dwindles. Loss of a breadwinner may also mean that the people shift their diets from bought foods to the time-consuming collection of edible greens from the veld.
This was the strongest association that Twine found in all the households surveyed. Lack of a breadwinner means that bought protein like chicken and meat no longer appear on the menu, and in the words of one impoverished person, "Locusts are now our beef".
Twine says, "Support for the sustainable use of communal natural resources and encouraging production of indigenous food plants should be regarded as vital activities in mitigating the impacts of Aids on rural households."